BUT DO MEN LIKE IT?
The ultimate goal of a work-life balance is seeing women stretched to their limits to keep up with multiple responsibilities inside and outside the home. But has the evolution of these new female roles shaped new family models? Across more liberal and traditional contexts, there are mothers and female partners who also work or study, trying to balance family, career and personal needs in what sometimes feels like a race against time and pressure. Organising, prioritising, maximising – the standard imperative is to compromise between the conventional role of homemakers and these new aspirations.
Data shows that the housework remains a woman’s job – an after-hours job, perhaps. In the UK, most women are currently in work, yet ladies do nearly twice as many household chores than men, according to a recent BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour survey.
Their Italian counterparts, struggling with higher unemployment rates, spend three times the hours men do taking care of the house, and twice the time on other family members (data: OECD). Allegra Salvadori, a London-based Italian journalist and digital business strategist, has been standing against the infamous gender gap both in her writing and in her private life. Her husband, who is also Italian, works in finance outside London. His daily commute, though, is no excuse to avoid helping around the house and in the care of their daughter, Viola.
“[He] is one of those rare people in the world who understands my idea of a modern family, where roles are really split 50/50. He does all the grocery shopping, he cooks, he often picks up Viola from school or takes her in the morning, and he supports me while I’m away for work,” Allegra says.
Practical help from a spouse is key, but women sometimes struggle to delegate and negotiate responsibilities, perhaps influenced by the traditional idea that certain occupations remain female. Even Allegra confesses: “I want my house to be tidy before I go out, I can’t leave with an unmade bed; I’m a bit obsessed.” So she takes on some more work, compared to her husband. But she adds: “That’s pretty typical for women, anyway.” In families with two working adults, it seems reasonable to organise roles around working schedules and economic factors while trying to reconcile love, ambitions and convenience. But when men remain the main breadwinner, it is more often the woman’s career which loses out.
Last August, Allegra left her full-time position at a prestigious digital production agency to focus more on her daughter. Now, she works from 9am to 3pm for an agency she set up herself. Part-time solutions – when available – seem to mesh well with childcare, but they may stand in the way of higher work achievements. Nella McNabb, a London executive presence coach with two children in their twenties, explains: “My husband has always had a high pressure job, but I have always worked even when the children were smaller. I managed to find part-time work which suited me well and was able to continue
my career, though not to the extent of my husband’s”.
As a working mother, Nella hired a nanny for six months until the children went to nursery school. “I would often go to see the teachers at school for parent/teacher evening on my own as my husband was working long hours,” she remembers. Nella now takes care of the house with the help of a cleaner
once a week, she does the shopping and pays the bills. Her husband is in charge of all the cooking though - “I’m the sous chef!” she says, expressing the family’s love for food and a good meal. “We all cook together if we are at home at the same time,” she adds. Cooking seems to be a favourite of many men, and an encouraging number of male figures are pushing forward a more flexible approach to household duties between sexes. Take Michele Monina, for instance. The Italian writer works mostly from home, where he lives with his wife and their four children. With such a large family, their routine is hard to define, but one key ritual is that Michele’s wife leaves the house to go to work, and he stays in to write. He has time to pick up the kids from school and do the shopping. “I don’t know if this is the norm in Italy today, but we are definitely not a unique case,” he says. And he is right. An increasing number of families are re-thinking conventional roles because it is more convenient. “We adapt ourselves to the circumstances,” says Michele. “Some practical things, like doing the groceries, I do them because it’s more convenient - going to the shops outside peak hours takes less time.” But there are also things only his wife could do, like giving their three-year-old twins a bath.
Openness to negotiate responsibilities gives families more possibilities and more choice. They are freer to explore new strategies to manage time and energies, to communicate each other’s needs, and to commit (on their terms) to the best practice for their happiness and wellbeing – whatever that may be.
“[Me and my wife] share some of our tasks, based on our abilities,” Michele adds. He can cook to survive, but his wife is much better in the kitchen; if there is a plumbing problem or some DIY to do, he is the one in charge. As he puts it: “We’re a family, we help each other, even our older children do what they can.”